Embedded journalists

Posted: Mar 27, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- How is it that the American press, particularly the broadcast press, has become one of the most salient stories of this war? At first, we might think that this is a consequence of a new development in the sexual revolution, as the members of the press boast of now being "embedded" with our troops. But that would be a misreading of the term.

"Embedded" has no sexual meaning or connotation whatsoever. It is a neologism supposedly dreamed up by a member of the Bush administration to give the press the idea that it is being given unparalleled access to the front lines. Devoid of the hoopla, embedded merely means the journalists are traveling with our troops, and under very Spartan conditions -- no hanky-panky.

The unhappy consequence of this "embedding" is that the journalists back in the broadcast studios are transforming their traveling journalists into an important part of the story. As media reporter Howard Kurtz wrote the other day: "The reason we're all spending so much time debating media coverage of the war is that there's never been a war where reporters interviewed soldiers who were on the ground firing or had just been wounded. A hundred things may go right, but if five things go wrong, you're watching them live and in Technicolor."

The first half of Kurtz's statement is wrong, as I shall demonstrate. War correspondents have traveled with soldiers in past wars, interviewing them under all sorts of conditions, some quite horrible. But Kurtz's later observation is perceptive. Our embedded war correspondents' reports are often broadcast immediately from the war front to millions of viewers back home. As a consequence, producers in the broadcast studio and viewers back home are suddenly seeing these correspondents as heroes and superb journalists.

Allow me to file a caveat. It has yet to be demonstrated that any of these journalists are heroes. What is more, inveigling a spot on a convoy headed to the front is just the first step in being a superb journalist. After that, it is necessary to fasten onto a good story, and with vivid language. Today's broadcast journalists may have some technical skills with cameras and microphones, but I have yet to see any with a gift for articulation. That is the domain of the writer, and not many writers are being accorded stardom in this war's media coverage. If it were up to me, I would accord stardom to John F. Burns of The New York Times. He has managed to get to some choice observation points, and he is a gifted writer.

Perhaps a generation hence, educated Americans will savor the observations of one of the embedded reporters now speaking into a camera with, say, the Third Infantry Division, but I doubt it. If there is such a journalist, the journalist will be a writer, as World War II's Ernie Pyle was a writer.

In the 1930s, Pyle was a roving correspondent for Scripps-Howard newspapers. By the commencement of hostilities in Europe, he was traveling with our troops, as "embedded" as you can get, hunched next to them in the trenches, climbing with them up mountains, landing in jungles, until Japanese machine-gun fire killed him in 1945. One of his specialties was to report in his dispatches the hometown addresses of those soldiers he was slogging along with. Excerpts from his reportage in the Italian mountains during the American campaign of late 1943, early 1944 will convey the clarity of his prose and the gruesomeness of the war our fathers and grandfathers fought.

"I know that the folks back home were disappointed and puzzled by the slow progress in Italy. ... Our troops were living in almost inconceivable misery. The fertile black valleys were knee-deep in mud. Thousands of the men had not been dry for weeks. ... The pack outfit I was with supplied a battalion that was fighting on a bald, rocky ridge nearly 4,000 feet high. That battalion fought constantly for 10 days and nights, and when the men finally came down, less than a third of them were left. All through those terrible days, every ounce of their supplies had to go up to them on the backs of mules and men. Mules took it the first third of the way. Men took it the last bitter two-thirds because the trail was too steep even for mules. ... Mail was their most tragic cargo. Every night, they would take up sacks of mail, and every night they'd bring a large portion of it back down -- the recipients would have been killed or wounded the day their letters came."

Pyle's GI's will always live in his pages: "When I went up the trail, my guide was Pfc. Fred Ford, of 3037 North Park Drive, East St. Louis." Is the address still there today? Is Pfc. Ford still with us?

Pyle's experience of war would probably not be taped for "NBC Nightly News." In World War II, he witnessed "trench foot (which) comes from a man's feet being wet and cold for long periods and from not taking off his shoes often enough. In the mountains, the soldiers sometimes went for two weeks or longer without ever having their shoes off or being able to get their feet dry. The tissues gradually seem to go dead, and sores break out. ... We had cases where amputation was necessary. And in others, soldiers couldn't walk again for six months or more. ... Sometimes the men let trench foot go so long without complaining that they were finally unable to walk and had to be taken down the mountain in litters."

Doubtless, today our soldiers and Marines face equal torments, and it is to them that we should be grateful while we await another Ernie Pyle.